Grab a Compass and Ditch the Roadmap
March 18, 2013
I stepped onto the late evening flight exhausted and frustrated after a day of delays and shuffling. I know that I will miss the last connecting flight back to Toronto and have to stay overnight. Every business traveller has been there, myself more times than I care to count. I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my chair, listen to music and zone out. My seatmate had a different idea.
“Hi, I’m Jeff. I’ve just sold everything I own except what’s in this backpack. An odd thing for a forty something, divorced father of two to do, huh?”
“I suppose it depends on why you did it,” I say, my curiosity piqued.
“Well, I looked around and realized that I was successful by the usual standards. I was married, have two great kids, the big house, good money and yet I felt something was missing. I wasn’t sure how I had gotten where I was. What was the point? We had six TV’s, multiple entertainment devices and shoes that cost more than some people’s houses in some places in the world. Yet we didn’t seem to care about that, or talk to each other or really do anything. I decided that I was going to change my family. My family didn’t think they needed to change.”
“So here I am, setting off on my own spiritual walkabout for the next six months. I’ve got a ticket to South America and a job in Boston waiting for me. I know where my journey begins and ends but we’ll see where life takes me, who I become and most importantly why. My kids are going to spend two weeks with me. One on the beach and then one seeing how the world outside of their suburb looks. Is that crazy?”
My initial reaction: What an unusual way to combat a mid-life crisis! I had heard of sports cars, motorcycles and skydiving before but nothing like this. I thought for a moment. “Crazy? Maybe. I think it’s courageous to take time for discovery. Sometimes you need to get out of your environment and just be open to learning to come back to what you already know. You are like a modern day Santiago in the Alchemist. Except you’re searching for your personal legend instead of the treasure.”
As we departed the plane I wished him luck on his travels and headed off to get my flight arranged for the next day. I couldn’t stop thinking about Jeff and his journey. I realized that I have met so many people in the same situation as Jeff but they were struggling with the point of their work versus their life.
Most companies have a good understanding of where they are starting and a reasonable picture of where they want to end up. Like Santiago, they set out on a quest for treasure – greater revenues, new markets, higher margins, etc. – without a lot of value placed on the journey of discovery. Armed with a roadmap, they select shortest route on the GPS and start to follow. When they reach their destination they find it is often accompanied with poor employee engagement and a difficulty sustaining the benefits. Similar to the reaction of Jeff’s family to the change he expected. A problem the Alchemist sums up when he tells Santiago, “Those who don’t understand their personal legends will fail to comprehend its teachings.”
The leaders I have had the privilege of working with follow a different path. Don’t get me wrong the end goal is to get the treasure. But they believe that the journey to the treasure has as much value, maybe even more value, for the long-term success of the organization. They arm their people with a compass in lieu of a detailed map and are often amazed at the sights seen along the way. It’s what develops and brings people along their own discovery of purpose and contribution. They feel the failures and successes that come with learning so they can truly understand and believe in where they end up. Sometimes it’s a place no one expected – somewhere far better than imagined.
Feeling refreshed the next morning I was ready to accept all of the challenges air travel had to throw at me. Instead everything went smoothly and my flight was on time with an expected early arrival. As I said good morning to my seatmate my mind was ready to learn another valuable lesson. One that has changed the way I view my work. Was this vibrant woman sitting next to me by accident? Was it serendipity? Written in the stars? I’ll tell you that story next time.